Review – Enemy

There’s double trouble to be had in Denis Villeneuve’s compulsive and uncompromising psychological descent into a world of neurosis, nightmares and arachnids.

Enemy is bold and beguiling filmmaking and a puzzle that will linger in the memory long after the closing credits

Enemy is bold and beguiling filmmaking and a puzzle that will linger in the memory long after the closing credits

Loosely based on José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double as opposed to Dostoyevsky’s novel of the same name (which Richard Ayoade adapted to moderate acclaim in 2014), Enemy is one of those puzzle box films that reward repeat viewings.

Ostensibly, the movie follows unfulfilled history lecturer Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) down the rabbit hole following the shock discovery that a bit player in a movie he’s watching is his apparent doppelgänger. Adam seeks out actor Anthony Claire (also Gyllenhaal), who may be his physical duplicate but appears more narcissistic and charismatic than the nervous and emotionally repressed Adam. Their encounter has unforeseen repercussions for both men, as well as for Adam’s girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent) and Anthony’s pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon).

The left hand doesn't know what thr right hand's doing for Adam/Anthony (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Enemy

The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand’s doing for Adam/Anthony (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Enemy

Scratch beneath the surface, however, and Villeneuve’s absorbing picture is a spider’s nest of different interpretations and perspectives in which individuality has become as precarious as one man’s collapsing mind.

The film’s opening intertitle “Chaos is order yet undeciphered” – a line taken from Saramago‘s novel – is given form by the numerous long shots of a city (in this case Toronto); that most chaotic yet fully formed of human creations that here is infected with a yellow, hazy sickliness, beautifully realised by cinematographer Nicolas Bodluc.

Anthony's pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) in Enemy

Anthony’s pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) in Enemy

It has been argued (convincingly in my mind) the spiders seen throughout the film are both a visual and subtextual metaphor for a loss of freedom.

Adam teaches his class about the larger impact of this loss of freedom through his lectures on dictatorships, specifically their obsession with control and “censoring any means of individual expression”. On a more personal scale, Villeneuve shows us Adam/Anthony’s fractured psychological state and as the film continues it becomes apparent (at least to this reviewer) that Adam and Anthony are one in the same person, battling it out to see which side of his personality wins out. As a poster for the film implies: “You can’t escape yourself.”

Anthony (or is it Adam?) (Jake Gyllenhaal)  spies on Mary (Mélanie Laurent) in Enemy

Anthony (or is it Adam?) (Jake Gyllenhaal) spies on Mary (Mélanie Laurent) in Enemy

Shots of overhead electrical cables and a cracked window signify a spider’s web and lend extra weight to the suggestion that Adam/Anthony is trapped and must confront his own identity.

In many ways, Prisoners, the title of Villeneuve’s and Gyllenhaal’s other collaboration would be a more fitting title for this film, although the name Enemy, like the rest of the movie, works on more than one level.

Since breaking out with 2001’s Donnie Darko, Gyllenhaal has freed himself from the spider’s web of big budget nonsense like The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time (2010) to set himself apart as an actor who commands serious respect. Gyllenhaal has had his fair amount of detractors in the past, but the choices he’s making with the likes of this and Nightcrawler are genuinely exciting.

Double trouble in Enemy

Double trouble in Enemy

Gyllenhaal is tremendous in the dual role of two men both separate and conjoined and, crucially, makes you forget about the novelty factor almost immediately. Laurent and Gadon don’t have an awful lot to do, but lend themselves to the overall sense of disquiet. The influence of Vertigo has been acknowledged by Villeneuve and the fact that both Laurent and Gadon are striking blonds in the picture is presumably a nod to Hitchcock’s preference for women in his movies with that hair colour.

Furthermore, the film’s ominous visual palette is lent extra impact by the disquieting score by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans which pulls you around as much as Bodluc’s camera.

Enemy is bold and beguiling filmmaking and a puzzle that will linger in the memory long after the closing credits.

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Review – Starred Up

Just when you think you’ve seen all there is to offer from the well-worn prison genre, along comes this exhilarating and intelligent low-budget gem.

Starred Up Poster

Starred Up is as smart and uncompromising as it is ferocious. There’s a new daddy in town and this is it

From Cool Hand Luke (1967), to Midnight Express (1978), The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and about a million others, the prison movie lends itself to numerous different interpretations.

The most forgettable tend to be none-too-weighty action flicks that provide steady work for former wrestlers or MMA fighters, while the ones that stick in the memory are either allegorical (Cool Hand Luke‘s religious symbolism, for example) or have something to say about the world we live in.

Eric Love (Jack O'Connell) is Starred Up

Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is Starred Up

One of the best prison movies in recent years was Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009) which, apart from being genuinely nail-biting, was also overt in its politics. There are hints of A Prophet in David Mackenzie’s brutal and electrifying Starred Up as it closely follows the travails of Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), a young inmate prematurely incarcerated into an adult prison.

The film’s methodical opening reel is similar to Audiard’s masterpiece as it fixes its gaze on Eric as he is transported to jail and is processed by the guards in a deliberately intimidating fashion designed to reinforce the power structure. Unlike Tahir Rahim’s Malick from A Prophet, however, Eric is already a veteran of the penal system, having been ‘starred up’ (transferred early) from a Young Offender Institution and makes it is first act to fashion a weapon for himself.

Like father, like son... Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) discovers son Eric (Jack O'Connell) is inside in Starred Up

Like father, like son… Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) discovers son Eric (Jack O’Connell) is inside in Starred Up

Although clearly intelligent, Eric is also a caged animal and acts impulsively, more often than not out of a sense of fear. He must also deal with the discovery that he’s locked up alongside his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a respected long-term convict, and forms a loose connection with the well-meaning Oliver (Rupert Friend), a therapist who wants a chance to help him.

Eric stands at a crossroads within the prison. His father represents a broken past that has led him to this place; the system, led by Sam Spruell’s loathsome Deputy Governor Hayes represents the walls that surround him in the present; while a possible future is represented by Oliver, who wants to help break the cycle of violence and self-destruction in the lives of Eric and other inmates.

Therapist Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend) tries to help inmate Eric (Jack O'Connell) in Starred Up

Therapist Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend) tries to help inmate Eric (Jack O’Connell) in Starred Up

The brutality of the prisoners is reflected by the guards and the authority that runs the facility. Jonathan Asser’s script (based on the writer’s own experience of having worked as a therapist in a prison) deftly lays bare the hypocrisy of a prison system that purports to want to rehabilitate its inmates, but in actuality sees the likes of Eric as nothing more than worthless scum not worth bothering with. Violence begets violence, from the bottom to the very top.

O’Connell gives a fearless performance as Eric. On his own in his cell, he betrays a pent-up look of fear that reminds us just how young he is, but around others adopts a puffed up arrogance that spills over into uncontrollable fury.

Convict Eric Love (Jack O'Connell) won't take things lying down in Starred Up

Convict Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) won’t take things lying down in Starred Up

Eric’s complicated relationship with his father is the heart of the film and both actors give it everything they’ve got. Eric initially cannot look Neville in the eye when they first encounter each other in the prison yard and the anger and disappointment felt by his father is palpable. Neville, whose impulse towards savagery is shared by Eric, is torn between looking out for his son and wanting to knock seven bells out of him, and it’s absorbing watching how one side slowly wins out over the other.

Needless to say the violence is shocking and visceral, but then it has to be when you consider the environment these people exist in.

Starred Up is as smart and uncompromising as it is ferocious. There’s a new daddy in town and this is it.

Review – Prisoners

The mark of Scandinavian crime drama seeps into every gloomy frame of this brutal and nihilistic English language debut from director Denis Villeneuve.

Prisoners may retreat into traditional thriller territory, especially in its final act, but it offers no easy answers and paints a very troubling picture of God-fearing American suburbia

Prisoners may retreat into traditional thriller territory, especially in its final act, but it offers no easy answers and paints a very troubling picture of God-fearing American suburbia

Prisoners opens with carpenter Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) uttering the Lord’s Prayer before his son (Dylan Minnette) shoots his first deer. It’s a symbolic moment – a violent act performed in God’s name, one in which forgiveness is spoken of but ultimately ignored.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) demands action from Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to find his daugher in Prisoners

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) demands action from Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to find his daugher in Prisoners

Keller is a deeply religious man whose New Testament nature gives way to Old Testament retribution when his young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) goes missing along with the daughter of his good friend Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) during a Thanksgiving dinner. Panic and grief give way to murderous vengeance for Keller when the police, led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), are forced to release their chief suspect, the mentally challenged Alex (Paul Dano).

Prime suspect Alex (Paul Dano) is interrogated by Detecive Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Prisoners

Prime suspect Alex (Paul Dano) is interrogated by Detecive Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Prisoners

Loki implores Keller and his wife Grace, who’s become virtually catatonic through grief, to let him do his job, which involves methodically following whatever leads the case throws up. But blinded by rage and convinced that Alex knows where the girls are being held, an obsessive Keller takes it upon himself to act as judge, jury and, if necessary, executioner to find the ‘truth’, sucking Franklin and his wife Nancy (Viola Davis) into his increasingly disturbing descent.

Keller Dover takes the law into his own hands in Prisoners

Keller Dover takes the law into his own hands in Prisoners

Cinematographer par excellence Roger Deakins infuses Prisoners with an almost suffocating dread – woods haven’t looked this spine-tingling since The Blair Witch Project. Not only does the film coldly nod in the direction of Scandi-drama, it also owes a lot to the slate-grey creepiness of David Fincher (in particular Seven and Zodiac), whose most recent film is, of course, his remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Another Scandi-connection can be found in the atmospheric soundtrack provided by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

As well as the obvious religious overtones, it’s also easy to find a 9/11 allegory in Prisoners – a wounded America (religious everyman Keller) goes in search of revenge against its quarry (Alex) and is prepared to sacrifice its moral superiority to quench its thirst for vengeance.

Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are dragged into Keller Dover's quest for vengeance in Prisoners

Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are dragged into Keller Dover’s quest for vengeance in Prisoners

Aaron Guzikowski’s script asks some troubling questions, most notably, to what lengths would you as a parent go when your worst nightmares are realised. Given the right material, Jackman can really act and shows he’s far more than the Wolverine with a raw and powerful performance as Keller. Jackman’s natural physicality lends a ticking time bomb nature to his character, someone who you believe will do anything to get his daughter back.

Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo) protects Alex (Paul Dano) in Prisoners

Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo) protects Alex (Paul Dano) in Prisoners

Gyllenhaal, who played a political cartoonist dragged into tracking down a serial killer in Zodiac, gives Loki (another Scandinavian connection) a stoical implacability that nicely mirrors Keller’s bull-in-a-china-shop aggressiveness. His pronounced blinking suggests an appalled bewilderment at what his character is investigating and contributes to what is the latest in a line of fine performances from Gyllenhaal.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) on the case in Prisoners

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) on the case in Prisoners

The heavyweight supporting cast are uniformly excellent. Dano, normally a little too over-the-top, dials it right down as the tragic Alex; Howard and Davis are entirely believable as a couple who suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the moral line and don’t know what to do; while Melissa Leo is reliably great as Alex’s impassive Aunt Holly.

It’s not until you watch the film that you realise just how rare a commodity it is in American studio cinema these days. Prisoners may retreat into traditional thriller territory, especially in its final act, but it offers no easy answers and paints a very troubling picture of God-fearing American suburbia.